A deliberately provocative short story by SF great Theodore Sturgeon which argues in defense of consensual adult incest*. First published in Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions.

Sturgeon's is perhaps the most dangerous (certainly the most unsettling) of the visions to be found in the anthology, despite the polished, self-consciously literate prose with which he presents it. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:

The Sun went Nova in the year 33 A.E. "A.E." means "After the Exodus." You might say the Exodus was a century and a half or so A.D. if "A.D." means "After the Drive." The Drive, to avoid technicalities, was a device somewhat simpler than Woman and considerably more complicated than sex, which caused its vessel to cease to exist here while simultaneously appearing there, by-passing the limitations imposed by the speed of light. One might compose a quite impressive account of astrogation involving the Drive, with all the details of orientation here and there and the somewhat philosophical difficulties of establishing the relationships between them, but this is not that kind of a science fiction story.

The premise of the story, it is eventually revealed, is that there is a sort of forgotten paradise of a planet, Vexvelt, which is shunned by the rest of the galaxy despite its rich resources and ideal climate. The protagonist, Charli Bux, learns of Vexvelt's existence without knowing why it is shunned. He reaches the planet, is taken into the household of a Vexveltian man, and falls in love with one of the man's daughters. Charli is revolted and outraged to later find her having sex with his host, her father. The father then sits down with Charli to engage him in a Heinleinesque Platonic dialogue:

     "Tell me, then: what's wrong with incest?"
     "You breed too close, you get faulty offspring. Idiots and dead babies without heads and all that."
     "I knew it!...Isn't is wonderful? From the rocky depths of a Stone Age culture... all the way out to the computer technocracies...- you ask that question and you get that answer. It's something everybody just knows. You don't have to look at the evidence....
     "Sex is a pretty popular topic on most worlds. Almost every aspect of it that is ever mentioned has almost nothing to do with procreation.... But mention incest, and the response always deals with offspring. Always! To consider and discuss a pleasure or love relationship between blood relatives, you've apparently got to make some sort of special mental effort that nobody, anywhere, seems able to do easily- some not at all."
     "I admit I never made it. But then- what is wrong with incest, with or without pregnancy?"
     "Aside from moral considerations, you mean. The moral consideration is that it's a horrifying thought, and it's a horrifying thought because it always has been. Biologically speaking, I'd say there's nothing wrong with it. Nothing. I'd go even further..."
And Sturgeon does go further, to argue that a society in which people are free to act on their incestuous urges may be psychologically healthier.

In arguing that incest is biologically harmless, Sturgeon is only half wrong. The offspring of close relatives are more likely to suffer defects due to doubled copies of harmful recessive genes, but such defects are not as common as people seem to think- and the same is true of non-incestuous mating within genetically homogeneous groups. No one attaches moral significance to the fact that the children of two Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to suffer from Tay-Sachs, or that two parents of West African descent are more likely to bear children with sickle-cell anemia. Moreover, the biological consequences of inbreeding are irrelevant in an age of reliable contraception and prenatal testing.

Sturgeon's suggestion that incest could be socially and psychologically beneficial is an extrapolation from Freudian theory. Freud speculated that men** in modern societies are unhappy because civilization requires that they suppress their primal urges- chief among those, the desire for sexual access to all women, including (especially) their own mothers. Sturgeon's story looks at Freudian thought from an unexpected direction: If the malaise and mental illness of civilized men stem from the repression of their incestuous desires, shouldn't a society in which incest is freely practiced be healthier and happier?

Sturgeon's intention in "If All Men Were Brothers" is partly to shock- the Dangerous Visions anthology was conceived as a collection of SF stories too incendiary to be published elsewhere. But Sturgeon also has the more serious purpose of challenging the reader's preconceptions. He takes a practice everyone knows is wrong and asks, "Why, in particular, is this wrong? Whom does it harm?" The story asks these questions regarding incest, but the point is more general: Sturgeon calls for an intellectual fearlessness, a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, however unsettling. Or, as Sturgeon, in his afterword to the story, more modestly wrote:

I hope the yarn starts some fruitful argument.



*It should be stressed that the story deals with consensual, adult incest- Sturgeon does not sanction child abuse, incestuous or not, nor does the story mention any sexual contact between adults and children.
**And women- but Freud developed this idea mostly with respect to men. And gender neutrality makes for awkward writing.
†Sturgeon presupposes a utilitarian worldview in which all moral questions can be reduced to empirical questions.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Stranchey, James, translator. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1961.
Sturgeon, Theodore. "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" Dangerous Visions. Ellison, Harlan, ed.
     New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967. 344-389.

(It's a funny thing: I always have trouble remembering the title of this story accurately. I keep thinking it's "If All Men were Brothers, Would You Want One to Marry Your Sister?" instead of "...Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" Because, of course, in the civilized world, men do not have veto power over their sisters' choice in husbands.)

Anyway, I'd like to add a few supplementary observations to kaffir's excellent writeup supra. I'm going to have some rather pointed things to say, so let me begin by saying that this is a really good story. I'd tell you that it's very well written, but it's by Theodore Sturgeon, so you know that already. And it certainly is provocative. So I'd like to think of my writeup as being part of the "fruitful argument" Sturgeon hoped his yarn would engender.

Incest: A Healthy Part of this Balanced Utopia!

See, I think it's possible to accept Sturgeon's picture of Vexvelt as a healthy, even blissful, world, and yet to believe that if you took our current society and magically removed its incest taboo without changing anything else, the result would be disastrous. I have nothing to say about the genetic consequences; I just don't know enough about the prevalence of harmful recessive genes, and I'm prepared to accept that whatever the risk of two-headed offspring is, it's low enough that it can't sensibly form the basis for a universal ban on non-procreative as well as procreative incestuous unions. But I'd like to point out three facts about Vexvelt that strike me as being socially important:

  1. Vexveltians are polyamorous.
  2. Vexveltians are all drop-dead gorgeous.
  3. On Vexvelt, sex is No Big Deal.

Clearly, these facts are all interrelated, and I think Sturgeon (or rather Vorhidin, the story's most articulate advocate for incest) could argue that the third one, in particular, is at least as much a consequence of the acceptance of incest as it is a prerequisite for it. (The argument would, however, probably turn on some Freudian ideas about which I am highly skeptical.) But I don't think an incest-tolerant society can work without at least #1 and #3 (and #2 woud certainly help a great deal), and if you need incest to get you to #3, well, then, you can't get there from here (which is what Charli Bux is told, in a much more literal way, when he tries to book passage to Vexvelt for his vacation).

Life on Vexvelt goes something like this:

Suppose a man and a woman get married and have a daughter. She grows up to be nubile and capable of informed consent and all that jazz, and her father gets the hots for her. He's in luck, because even though he's her old man, he's drop-dead gorgeous (#2), so she's into it, and he doesn't have to divorce his wife to pursue his daughter, because they're all polyamorous (#1), and in fact his wife isn't even mildly annoyed about it, because sex is No Big Deal (#3).

Or suppose a teenage girl's brother starts coming on to her. If she's not interested, she can just decline, and it won't be at all awkward going on living in the same house with him, because sex is No Big Deal (#3). But then, why wouldn't she be interested? After all, he's gorgeous (#2) and sex is No Big Deal (#3)—it's just another way of showing affection—and it's not like it would interfere with her relationships with any of her other boyfriends (#1).

This doesn't sound much like our world minus the incest taboo, does it? In our world, it's really important, for a variety of reasons, to be able to get the hell away from someone with whom you used to have sex but don't want to anymore, or someone who wants to have sex with you but with whom you don't want to have sex. And it can be difficult to get away from your family. You can break up with your brother, but he doesn't stop being your brother. So removing the incest taboo would not be a first step toward a Vexveltian-style sexual utopia.

What would be a better first step? Well, if we could magically change one thing about sex in today's society, how about abolishing rape? How about making sure that no man anywhere is under the misapprehension that he has some kind of right to sexual access to any woman he fancies? And that no woman anywhere is under the misapprehension that she has some kind of obligation to have sex with a man who fancies her when she doesn't really want to? It seems—it damned well should seem—perfectly obvious that rape is wrong, and yet somehow not everyone in our society is willing to act on that truth. Now, how do we fix this? How far away are we from abolishing rape? Because unless we can do that, I don't think we can achieve a society in which sex is No Big Deal—not if there are still guys out there who use sex as a weapon. If we can't even get everyone to agree to the simple truth that everyone has an absolute right to say no to sex, then we can't get anywhere near the carefree, polyamorous, generally un-fucked-up paradise of Vexvelt.

I'll be an Uncle Fucka in the post-patriarchy.

Addendum: Unperson has drawn my attention to the node Fear of sex is the power of rape, in which futurebird, hobyrne, TheLady, and davoroy have some interesting things to say about the idea that rape would lose (much of) its particular terror if sex were No Big Deal—that it would then be just another kind of assault. It's an interesting idea, and I think that perhaps the elimination of rape and the demystification of sex might be mutual co-requisites.

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